By Karen Coffin
The condition we call “burnout” is pretty familiar and it’s not fun. If you’re so sick of doing something that you want to quit doing it – no matter the consequences – you are “burned out.” Often, you are very good at what you do. The expectation is you will keep getting even better, especially if you work harder.
We’re seeing an epidemic of burned out kids in youth sports. Burnout is always a result of too much pressure. Dr. Jim Loehr, a leading sports psychologist, describes it as a “consequence of excessive stress, either physical or emotional.”
It’s a familiar cycle. A child shows interest and skill in a sport. He or she grows to love it. Parents are supportive and do everything in their power to provide encouragement and opportunities for improvement. Success follows and people begin to talk about college scholarships and the possibility of a professional career. Then the kid quits. What just happened here? Why the burnout?
There are lots of causes, but when a sport becomes a job for a child, it’s not much fun anymore. When success gets harder to obtain (and it does at higher levels of competition), pressure to work harder increases. More work and more pressure lead to less fun and less fulfillment for the child.
Pressure causes stress. Stress causes poor performance. Some parents are so disappointed about the child wanting to quit that they inflict emotional scars as they respond to the situation. They see pushing their child to work harder as being the solution rather than one of the causes of the burnout.
Teens who quit usually cite three reasons for their decision. One is that playing the sport is not fun any more. Second is that it takes too much time and commitment. Third is that they are missing all the things the other kids are doing. They get tired, isolated and resentful. They may still be very good at what they do, but they begin to hate it because the emotional cost is too high.
How can we help? Parents and coaches need to be alert for symptoms. Notice loss of interest and a resistance to practice. Anger and irritability are seen during competition and at home. Making excuses for a bad performance is common as is blaming someone (referees) or something else (windy conditions).
Injuries – real or imagined – are a good way to get out of playing a sport. Watch for a pattern. Quitting during competition is a symptom. This isn’t actual forfeiting; it shows up as a lack of focus or care about the outcome. Showing anger is a warning flag, especially if it has not been an issue before. The player may ignore team rules. When disciplined, the player can then go off in a huff or quit the team altogether.
What should we do? Our job is to support kids but not to use them for our own egos. We can be so sure we are doing the right thing that it gets very hard to take a step back and try to find out what is happening. We must reduce the pressure to win; not add to it! Establishing goals other than winning is a big step. We must recognize improvement is not a straight line. There will be plateaus and times when learning new skills cause setbacks. Performance often gets worse before it gets better. These will be tough times. Punishment or disapproval will not help.
Listen to what the kids say. Respect their opinions. Yes, once they make a commitment, they should keep it. But, give them a choice about making the commitment. Keep a healthy perspective about the importance of building a star versus raising a healthy child. Sometimes, it’s the players themselves that cause the pressure. Insist they take some time off. Encourage them to play another sport. Build other activities into their schedule.
The very best thing we can do to prevent burnout is to make sure the kids know we love them and will be proud of them for who they are and not what they are. That’s burnout prevention.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Coffin is a retired coach and is a member of the Port Clinton (Ohio) Athletic Hall of Fame. She’s a writer and a facilitator for Ohio coach education classes. Contact her at coachcoffin @cros.net.